Macaroni and cheese is not just a favorite childhood snack but it is also considered one of the best low-cost meals for college students and comfort foods for adults. Now, a recent test of 30 cheese products shows that mac and cheese may contain high concentrations of a potentially harmful chemical that’s been banned in children’s toys.
Based on testing paid for by the Coalition for Safer Processing and Packaging, fatty foods like cheeses may be particularly susceptible to binding with chemicals known as phthalates.
The coalition, which is composed of four advocacy groups, purchased 30 different types of cheese products from retail stores in the United States and shipped all the items in their original packaging to a laboratory in Belgium.
VITO (the Flemish Institute for Technological Research) then tested the products for 13 different types of phthalates. All types of chemicals were found in 29 of the 30 cheese products, but the powdered cheese that comes with macaroni and cheese packages contained the highest concentrations of the chemicals.
“The phthalate concentrations in powder from mac and cheese mixes were more than four times higher than in block cheese and other natural cheeses like shredded cheese, string cheese and cottage cheese,” Mike Belliveau told The New York Times.
Belliveau is the executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, which is one of the four groups that paid for the testing. Healthy Babies Bright Futures, the Ecology Center and Safer States also funded the report.
Phthalates Effects on the Body May Include Birth Defects
Phthalates are chemicals used to help make plastics softer and more pliable and can be found in hundreds of products.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these products include things like “toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing, and personal care products, such as nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes and other fragrance preparations.”
The FDA states the effect of the chemicals on human health is still unclear. Between 1998 and 2000, a panel from the National Institute for Environmental Safety and Health concluded that the reproductive risks from exposure to phthalates were “minimal to negligible in most cases.”
However, in July 2014, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report on the potential dangers of the chemicals. The commission cited studies on rats that found exposure to phthalates in utero led to the disruption of testosterone. Male children who were exposed to the chemicals in the womb may develop genital birth defects or have fertility problems later in life.
More recent studies point to other adverse effects associated with exposure to the chemicals. In an upcoming volume of Environmental Pollution, one study suggested exposure to two types of phthalates may be associated with childhood asthma. Another study from earlier this year found an association between certain phthalates and childhood obesity.
Efforts to Ban Phthalates from Packaging Stalls in the US
In April 2016, a group of organizations led by Tom Neltner of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) requested the FDA to stop using phthalates in food packaging and food handling equipment.
Although the chemicals are not directly added to food like cheeses, phthalates can seep into certain types of food during the processing and packaging stages. Conveyor belts and even the ink on packaging can contain the potentially harmful chemicals.
The FDA currently allows the chemicals to be used in plastics, paper and cellophane that comes in contact with food.
“Academic studies have linked some of these chemicals to various reproductive, developmental and endocrine health problems,” Neltner wrote on the EDF site in April 2016. “In fact, every ortho-phthalate that has been studied for these types of health effects has been found to pose a risk. From lower IQ in young children to malformation of the male genital tract, the evidence of health effects in humans continues to grow. But, with more than half of the 30 chemicals lacking any published safety data, the full extent of the threat remains unclear.”
Despite the FDA agreeing to a review of phthalates, Neltner told the Times that the petition stalled for technical reasons.
The FDA has stated that it will continue to review new information about the effects of the chemicals on human health as it arises.
Tips for Avoiding Exposure to Phthalates
Although phthalates are found in hundreds of items and food products, there are things pregnant women and children can do to minimize exposure.
Since phthalates are more likely to bond to fatty foods like powdered cheeses found in macaroni and cheese, consumers are recommended to choose low-fat dairy products.
Eating fresh fruits and vegetables while minimizing the consumption of processed foods can also help reduce exposure to the chemicals.
According to the Times, many fragrances also contain the chemicals, which is why consumers should opt for personal care products like detergents, shampoos and cleansers without scents.